Guys and Dolls: Chicago Style

4 Dec

 Doing our duty as over-indulgent grandparents, my wife Diane and I   took our grandchildren to the American Girl Doll Place Cafe in downtown Chicago this summer.  This Mecca for girls  is more like a Vegas casino than a toy store.  The lights are bright and there are no windows or clocks on the walls. They want to encourage you to lose track of time. All that were missing were the free cocktails.

With three sisters, our  four year-old grandson, readily  accepts that nearly everything in his environment is pink.  However, we weren’t too sure how he would like spending so much time in a doll store. He’s a pretty tough little guy who spends much of his time playing aggressively with Spiderman and  Batman toys  or fist fighting with his older sister. To secure his interest before the trip, we offered to get him one of the boy American Girl dolls. This boy doll is part of a  set of  twins. He looked at one on-line and said he wanted it and that it looked just like him, which it sort of does. When the dolls arrived in the mail, he had no interest in the female  twin, which went to one of his sisters, but he readily claimed the boy doll,  naming  him Mack (a nice macho name that please his father).

 When we were seated at the American Girl Café there were fuchsia-colored  bows used as napkin rings. The girls wore them on their wrists or made ponytails, while Oliver ended up wearing his as a bowtie. I donated   mine to one of the girl’s dolls.   The waitress also seated the kid’s dolls alongside them in special little seats that attached to the table.    Then she  set a tiny red plate and white mug in front of each doll. The doll seats, plates, and mugs were all conveniently on sale as you departed the store. We had a consultation at the doll hospital on the way out, but avoided the expensive doll hair salon.

  Gender differences in toys have long been observed.  A study  by Purdue University  psychologists  Judith Blakemore  and Renee Centers  in 2005  had college students rate contemporary toys  as masculine or feminine. Wrestling figures , GI Joes,   and Spiderman action figures were all rated among the  strongly masculine toys;  while Barbie’s, Bratz, and American Girl dolls were categorized as  strongly feminine. As you might expect girl’s toys were associated with physical attractiveness, nurturance, and domestic skills, while  boy’s toys elicited  violence, competition, excitement, and danger. It seems like it is these associations that really  distinguish between a “doll” and an “action figure”.

Such gender differences are not limited to humans.  A 2010 study found that young chimpanzees in the wild play in gender-specific ways, much like  humans. Although both male and female chimps play with sticks, girl chimps carry sticks around   like dolls, imitating their mothers caring for infants, according to Richard Wrangham of Harvard University. Male chimps  do less stick carrying and are more likely to use their sticks as probes or weapons. 

            In 1967  Hasbro introduced the 21-inch  “That Kid!”  doll for boys, promoting it as  “your own kid brother”.   He was described as a  “freckle faced rascal!” . Complete with a sling shot, That Kid said smart-alecky  things when you moved him.  The “My Buddy” doll,  made by Hasbro in 1985   had the stated  intention of making a doll that could teach little boys about caring.   It’s not clear whether either of these dolls ever caught on, despite the heavy television advertising.  Ironically both of them are thought by some to be the  inspiration for  “Chucky”, the creepy evil doll from the movie  Child’s Play.    

               Our daughter and son-in-law  didn’t have a  problem  with us buying an American Girl boy  doll for  their son, but some parents and experts are  strongly  opposed to such things. Back in the 1980’s   Mattell  introduce, She-Ra: Princess of Power, as the long lost twin sister of  the popular  He-Man  character. Our kids had all of these action figures, but the story   circulated throughout the kindergarten  that one father took all of his son’s She-ra figures and destroyed them, because he was worried that they were too feminine.

               I don’t  remember ever having a doll when I was a child, but Diane said that her brother Gary had one–  a boy doll that he carried around and called little Gary.

            On his website advice section, television  psychologist  Dr. Phil McGraw  told a mother of a five-year-old boy that she should not let her son  play with “girls’ toys”. The mother had asked for advice about her son, who liked  Barbie dolls and dressing up in  girls’ clothes.  McGraw told her that it was not uncommon  for little boys to be interested in girls’ toys and clothes and  that such play  was “not a precursor”  to being gay.  But he did advise her to direct him in an unconfusing way. McGraw said  “Don’t buy him Barbie dolls or girls’ clothes. You don’t want to … support the confusion… Take the girl things away, and buy him boy toys.”

McGraw’s advice opened  up a can of worms. Some parents and experts weighed in  arguing that allowing cross gender play could only encourage gender confusion. The other side, however,   saw such play  as an opportunity to teach boys fathering  skills that’s perhaps becoming important, as more  men take an active role in caring for  children.

Of course, there’s also the question as whether to prohibit  girls from  playing  with  tools or cars, because it   might   confuse their budding gender identity.  Some experts suggest that  allowing freedom in play, allows children to learn  about  both male and females roles and that this can help  them  have insight in  relationships with the opposite sex.

Most authorities, however, do agree that play or specific  toys do  not determine future   sexual preference, which seems to be outside the realm of the parental influence in any case.

Purdue  psychologists Blakemore and Centers  conclude that strongly gender-typed toys were less supportive of optimal physical, social, and mental development than neutral or moderately gender-typed toys.

As for Mack, I think his days  are probably numbered. Our grandson doesn’t seem all that attached to him and is quite willing to sling him at any sister who crosses him.

Based on a column appearing in the Southern Indiana News Tribune


One Response to “Guys and Dolls: Chicago Style”

  1. Winnie April 8, 2013 at 4:27 pm #

    Have you ever thought about publishing an e-book or guest authoring on other
    websites? I have a blog based on the same topics you discuss and
    would love to have you share some stories/information.
    I know my readers would enjoy your work. If you are even
    remotely interested, feel free to send me an email.

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